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Superintendent Joe Rella

Joe Rella reflects on his career, his fight over state tests and how music fits into all of it

The late Joe Rella, pictured in June of 2019 with Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

Joe Rella, the soon-to-be retired superintendent of the Comsewogue Central School District once, nearly 30 years ago, found himself without a job.

He was in business administration for close to 15 years, saying he had been “on top of the world,” before his company, the last private electric supplier in New York, closed. After he lost his job he did everything he could, from a paper route in the early morning to playing a local church organ, just to add a little extra money into the pot. His late wife, Jackie, went part-time in college and started working at Mercy Hospital. That’s when he saw it, an ad for a part-time job.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“I couldn’t even say the name,” he said in a sit-down interview less than a month before his final high school graduation ceremony June 26. “Com-sew-ogue,” he said it phonetically. 

He lived in Farmingdale at the time, but he grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they used to call this area of Long Island “East Jesus,” because “only God lived out here”, there were so few people.

The job was part-time music teacher, where he would be accompanist to a middle school music teacher for a salary of $28,000. Over time, this part-time instructor would become a full-time music teacher, the high school principal, and eventually work his way up to superintendent of the entire district.

Jennifer Quinn, the current assistant superintendent and person tapped to become the next head of school starting in September, said in her 13 years of experience with the district, this climb from music teacher to superintendent was rare. She had never seen it or heard of its like since.

Rella said the jump from music teacher to a district leader wasn’t so much of a huge leap, especially considering his more-than-decade- long experience in business administration, yet he likened the practicality of music to running a school, helping one interact with people, and taking mistakes in stride.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

Quinn described herself as following in Rella’s footsteps. When the retiring super moved from high school principal to assistant superintendent, she became principal. When Rella moved into the big chair, he tapped her to be one of his assistant superintendents.

“It’s not a big shift, because all the programs we’ve done over these years, she’s responsible for,” Rella said.

Quinn has been encouraged to lead discussions and programs, with Rella there to offer advice.

“The fact is he always puts other people before his own ego,” she said. “Because in most places it’s close of business one day and then the next person starts. He’s purposely stepped back and given me the opportunity to start to do things and he’s here to guide me.”

They both described several necessary components for a good district leader. One is to communicate back to residents, and not wait days to respond to emails or phone calls. Another is to “be present,” to have your face and name be known not only by teachers but by students.

“They need to know who you are — kids do, parents do, everybody does” he said. “Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

To say the school district has been inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella would be an understatement. Unlike many other districts where one could be hard-pressed to find people who know the name of their head of schools, the name of Rella often brings an immediate impression. Rella has become a rallying cry for supporting student-first initiatives and programs based on a general idea of “kindness.” Just one example is Joe’s Day of Service, designed by special needs teacher Andrew Harris. 

Beyond Comsewogue, Rella became a name on the lips of New York State officials and even beyond, all due to standardized testing initiatives put forward on both the federal and state levels.

In 2013, the superintendent was at the forefront of protests against Common Core State Standards (implemented late in 2012), writing a letter to New York State officials asking them to address concerns or remove him from office. The letter went viral, and later that year Rella was at the head of a rally held at Comsewogue High School decrying Common Core. He said it became apparent immediately after the first standards were released to school districts that there would be no way to test the exams and offer criticism to the state’s program plans, adding letters sent to all New York superintendents suggested the state expected only a third of students would pass this first round of testing.

“We couldn’t accept what was happening to our children,” he said. “If a teacher comes in and says, ‘I’m only expecting a third of my class to pass this year,’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you throw your keys on the desk.’”

“Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

— Joe Rella

Though it’s been several years, the state’s testing standards still put Rella on a rant, though now he sees the district moving beyond it. Comsewogue implemented a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders. Last year the district relished statistics that said those who were involved in PBL had better overall Regents test scores than their contemporaries, though he said the state was not interested in any kind of replacement for standardized testing with PBL. Instead the district has looked to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, from which they were granted accreditation in 2017.

The superintendent continued that, since the huge outcry has boiled down into a low simmer, parents have been making the choice for their own children whether they would take the tests. 

“They haven’t budged,” he said.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he has told TBR News Media previously a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision to retire. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

Now, he’s living with his son and his grandchildren, whose little shoes will soon be running around the Comsewogue school district. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren while working on his piano and gardening skills. 

But while he will still be close to the district, Quinn said the legacy he left will be attempted to be replicated in the years to come.

“You will never be punished for not being perfect, you will be helped, you will be coached,” she said.

Rella again likened his job to music, and the drive to improve that is always at the forefront of practice, because what is school if not practice for life?

“You’re learning a piece of music — brand- new — you don’t know it, you’re not going to play it perfect right away, but what you do know is with careful practice, you’re going to get better,” he said.

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2018 Regents exam results for Comsewogue students in problem-based learning classes versus traditional ones. Click to enlarge. Graphic by TBR News Media

“Teaching to the test” is a concept that no longer computes in Comsewogue School District.

Administration and faculty in Comsewogue, for the last two school years, have experimented with a problem-based learning curriculum for small groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders, an alternative to the traditional educational strategy of focusing assignments and assessments toward the goal of performing well on state-mandated standardized tests at the end of the year. Now, Superintendent Joe Rella has data to back up his notorious aversion to one-size-fits-all education and assessment.

In all subjects, Comsewogue students in PBL classes passed 2018 Regents exams, scoring 65 or better, at a higher rate than those in traditional classrooms, according to data released by the district. On chemistry, geometry, algebra II, global history and English 11 exams, PBL students achieved mastery level, scoring 85 or better, at significantly higher rates than their non-PBL classmates.

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs.”

— Joe Rella

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs,” Rella said of how he interpreted the data, meaning students taught by alternative methods still displayed an aptitude on the state’s required tests.

Though Rella and the district have taken steps to try to have PBL assessments replace Regents exams, no avenue to do so has been greenlighted by the New York State Department of Education to this point for Comsewogue. Emails requesting comment on the significance of Comsewogue’s test results sent to the education department and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) press office were not returned.

During the 2017-18 school year, about half of Comsewogue’s ninth- and 10th-graders, roughly 300 students, took part voluntarily in PBL classes, which emphasize hands-on learning and real-world application of concepts as assessments — similar to a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation — as opposed to the traditional “Regents model.” The students were still required by the state to take the Regents exams as all students are, and their performance has inspired the district in year three of the pilot to expand its PBL curriculum offerings on a voluntary basis for 2018-19 to its entire student body — kindergarten through 12th grade.

The superintendent said the impetus for the district to experiment with PBL started three years ago, when he and about 20 Comsewogue teachers spent a day at the New York Performance Standards Consortium in Manhattan. The organization was founded on the belief that there was a better way to assess student learning than dependence upon standardized testing, according to its website.

“In traditional settings, the teacher did most of the work, we listened, we copied notes and then we were tested on it,” Rella said. “The way the structure was, you spent a year learning stuff. At the end of the year, you took a test to see what you knew.”

In PBL classrooms, regardless of subject, Rella explained that a problem is initially presented, and students learn skills that are meant to help them practically find an answer to the problem. One group of PBL students during the 2017-18 school year decided to approach opioid addiction as a subject matter. Rella said chemistry students and English students worked on parallel tracks addressing that problem, with the science classes researching and presenting on the science behind addiction and the brain, and the English classes creating a public service announcement on the topic. The students presented and defended their findings and approach to the Suffolk County Legislature, with two students eventually being asked to join the county’s commission on substance addiction, according to Rella.

“It’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

— Joe Rella

“You have to acquire knowledge in order to solve the problem, so there is traditional teaching going on,” he said. “But right from the beginning, it’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

Rella credited District Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Polychronakos as the driving force behind professional development and empowering district faculty to embrace the district’s new approach.

“We’ve so far created about 20 units of study districtwide that are ready to go for next year and we’ve piloted some of them and worked out some of the kinks,” Polychronakos said. “We’re going to continue to really just take the standards that we have from the state and make them into more of a project-based, or problem-based, learning type of experience for the kids.”

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe's Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Stories of Comsewogue School District students and staff engaging in acts of kindness are hardly rare, but an event conceived by a teacher and several students carried out May 30 somehow raised the bar.

High school teacher Andrew Harris said he thought of the idea of a full day of community service projects last school year, and in talking with some of his colleagues, a larger idea was born. By this school year, the event had a name — Joe’s Day of Service, after Superintendent Joe Rella — and students were making pitches in Harris’ class for how the student body should spend the day.

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Ninth-grade students Julia Ratkiewicz and Rachel Plunkett proposed the idea of visiting Calverton National Cemetery, where members of the United States armed forces are laid to rest, to spend the day cleaning gravestones. By May 30, nearly 200 Comsewogue High School students headed to the Calverton cemetery — on seven buses donated for use that day by Suffolk Transportation Service.

“I was in such a good mood, my mom asked, ‘Are you sure you were out cleaning gravestones?’” Julia said.

Rachel, who said she and Julia thought of the idea because they both have veterans in their family and wanted to show their appreciation, said she never imagined their small idea presented in class as a way to give back would turn into a districtwide day of service.

“It’s just the least we could do for them since they did so much for us,” she said.

Eleventh-grader John Quartararo, who also helped organize the trip, called his experience at the cemetery a beautiful day, and marveled at the mood and response from his classmates who participated on the trip.

While the high school students were at Calverton, other Comsewogue kids were at Save-A-Pet animal shelter in Port Jefferson Station, cleaning cages and spending time with the rescued animals. John F. Kennedy Middle School students visited Stony Brook University Hospital to sing in the lobby, then went over to the Long Island State Veterans Home on SBU’s campus to sing patriotic songs and spend time with the veterans living at the facility. Others collected toiletries to donate to the homeless. Some painted rocks as part of The Kindness Rocks Project, an initiative which calls on people to paint inspiring messages on rocks and leave them in places where they will be found by someone in need of a boost.

Comsewogue students are recognized during the June 14 Brookhaven Town board meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

Local businesses even got wind of Joe’s Day of Service and contributed to the cause. Chick-fil-A, Wahlburgers, Bagelicious Café, Walmart, McDonald’s and Applebee’s Grill and Bar in Miller Place all offered support in one way or another.

Harris and the students involved each credited Rella for setting the tone at Comsewogue and in the community.

“All I did was go to the events and just get blown away at every single one,” Rella said. “It was an unbelievable show on the part of our students. I’m better for having been here. I’m a better person for just having been at Comsewogue. And that’s the way it is.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) commended Harris and the students involved for their efforts.

“I think it’s important that we highlight all of these [acts] because on one day, they provided all of this service to our community, to those in need,” she said. “I just want to say thank you so much for all that you do, Comsewogue, and keep up the great work.”

Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

According to an organization that has been accrediting school districts for 125 years, Comsewogue is one of the best in the world. The district earned accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a worldwide leader in accreditation and continuous school improvement.

The lengthy and rigorous process is a self-study that is then evaluated by volunteers from association-member schools during an approximately two-year period. With the distinction, Comsewogue became the only full district of public schools on Long Island recognized by the commission.

The certificate Comsewogue received from the Middle States Association. Photo from Joe Rella

“After spending a few days here, I was reminded of a country music song by Eddie Arnold that went something like this: ‘Welcome to my world, won’t you come on in,’” Pat Impreveduto, chair of the Middle States Validation team for Comsewogue’s application, said in a letter to the district breaking the good news. “The team has heard and observed evidence that this is a commonplace in your district. It is evident that staff collaboratively works hard to set this as the expected and not the exception.”

To receive accreditation the district had to conduct self-evaluation in categories like aptitude for growth and improvement; mission, beliefs and profile of graduates; student performance data; district leadership, governance and organization; educational programs and resources; student services and student life; maintenance and operations; school district improvement planning and many more. After evidence of self-evaluation of all the categories was submitted, the commission’s volunteer team had no recommendations for ways to improve Comsewogue’s application, meaning they were well on their way to earning accreditation. About 2,700 schools worldwide have been granted Middle States accreditation.

“It validates things we’re doing,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in an interview. Rella, who has been in the district for 23 years, said he first had the idea to pursue the accreditation about 10 years ago, and added receiving the prestigious honor as a culmination of those efforts ranks at the top of his list of proudest accomplishments in education. Rella likened himself to a baseball manager who often gets credit for “home runs other people hit,” meaning receiving the distinction would not be possible without the other dedicated professionals working in the district. About 200 volunteers worked on the application. “It lifts up our community,” he said. “It’s going to be good for property values. It’s going to be good for just the sense of the community that they’re getting a good value for their dollar.”

Rella added the value of receiving the affirmation that the district is as high quality and special as they always believed they were is invaluable and extremely gratifying. Accreditation is granted on a seven-year basis, so the district now has a long-term plan for continued self-evaluation and improvement to ensure they have their application approved again in 2024.

“We’re not a wealthy district — our community can kind of feel used and abused,” Rella said. “We want to get [word of the accreditation] to the realtors, because the realtors are still in the mindset that we’re the ugly stepchild. Maybe not — maybe we just got a little better looking.”

The district plans to invite members from Middle States, elected officials and other members of the community to celebrate the achievement sometime in mid-June.

Joe Rella is planning to continue as Comsewogue’s superintendent for the immediate future, though he says he’s retiring in 2019. Photo by Barbara Donlon

The Comsewogue school district and community scored a win at a board of education meeting Feb. 6. The board unanimously approved a resolution to extend the contract of the district’s superintendent through the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Joe Rella was named superintendent in 2010, though he has been entrenched in the community for more than two decades. He said during an interview after the meeting he plans to be back for the school year beginning this September, and the following year, but at the moment his plan is to retire in August 2019. His contract, which was approved Feb. 6, will see him earn just over $216,000 in 2017-18, a 2 percent raise over his current salary for this school year. The passage of the resolution was met with applause from the board and community members in attendance.

“Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep.”

— Joe Rella

“I’m always ambivalent about it,” Rella said about the decision to remain at the helm of the district. “I’ll be 68 years old in 2019 — leave while you’re having fun. I love this place and you’ve got to know when to go. I’ve had a good run here and I’m happy, and I’m happy I’m here. But it’s time — I feel it.”

Rella began in the district as a music teacher 23 years ago, then spent eight years as principal of the high school. Next year will be his eighth as superintendent. He moved into the community — down the block from the high school — 20 years ago, he said.

“You’ve got to be close to the people and you’ve got to be close to the kids,” he said about the decision to move into the district where he works. “Pope Francis said at some talk I heard him give, and I love the expression he used, that the shepherd has to smell like the sheep. You can’t do it from down the block, you can’t phone it in and that means you got to be close to the people you work with. It’s an ideal setup.”

He estimated about half of the students at the high school have his cellphone number.

Rella used the word “love” repeatedly in describing his relationship with the people of the district. In August, his wife Jackie passed away, and he said the outpouring of support he received from the community was overwhelming.

“This community just put their arms around me and my family,” he said. “They were wonderful — so kind and caring. I had more food come to my house than I could possibly eat. One of my sons was actually driving it down to the soup kitchen because we had no place to put it. They just went wild. That’s the way they are here.”

Beyond the feelings of home and family, Rella associates with the district. He said he’s sticking around to see a couple of big projects to completion.

The district submitted an application to be accredited by the Middle States Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a regional membership association that gives its stamp of approval to districts based on their rigorous standards. Several schools on Long Island have received the distinction, though if accredited Comsewogue would be the only full district of public schools on Long Island recognized by the commission. Results of the application are expected this spring.

Comsewogue also participated in a pilot consortium program where two ninth-grade classes were exposed to a project- and inquiry-based curriculum, alternative to typical Regents classes, as a means to create a deeper understanding for several subjects, which Rella said the district plans to expand on next year.

“I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

— Joe Rella

“There’s a lot of really exciting things happening, and that’s what keeps me coming back every day,” Rella said. “Plus it’s a wonderful community. The kids are super, the faculty is super, the administrators.”

The superintendent joked the three stoplights between his home and his office can turn his five-minute ride into 10 some mornings, though he knows no one wants to hear that complaint.

Rella attributed much of his success and comfort in the district to his relationship with his assistant superintendents Jennifer Quinn, who handles curriculum and instruction, and Susan Casali, who is in charge of business.

“Jennifer is a wizard at curriculum and literacy — Susan is a wizard at finance,” he said, adding that the trio has a great working relationship based on mutual trust. “[An idea] still counts if I didn’t think of it, and I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

Rella’s duties are not limited to the job description of a traditional superintendent. He will be playing the piano in the high school drama club’s productions of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” Feb. 10 and 11. He also accompanies students trying out for the New York State School Music Association. Performances require accompaniment by a pianist, which can be expensive for rehearsals and would deter some students from applying. So the superintendent lends his time on nights and Saturdays to get students up to speed.

Rella said the combination of his involvement in student activities, living in the community and sending two of his kids through the district has made Comsewogue a perfect fit.

“It gives you some credibility,” he said. “I’m not making decisions for other people’s kids that I wouldn’t make for my kids. Plus, you go to the same barbershop; you go to the same supermarket … I can be myself. I’m too old to be anything else at this point. It’s been like that since I got here.”

Rella admitted it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but most days, it is.

“From the day I got here, there have been tough days, but never a day I said to myself, ‘I’m packing it in,’” he said. “There have been days I’ve said to myself, ‘If they find out I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, this is going to be a problem.’ They’re very honest people. They’ll tell you what’s on their mind. I’m not made of china; I’m not going to break.”

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Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella will be staying with the district for at least another four years, as his contract has been extended through August 2020.

At Monday’s board of education meeting, the board approved the amended contract, which includes an $8,000 salary increase in 2015-16 for the five-year superintendent.

It will be the first raise for Rella, who took the helm in September 2010 at a $200,000 salary.

In addition to the salary increase, Rella will be contributing 17 percent to his health benefits. While that number is slightly lower than in previous years, the district switched health insurance companies, resulting in lower premiums.

The contract does not absolutely define Rella’s salary and benefits from 2016-17 and beyond — the board must meet with him and discuss those points each year.

Shortly after voting on the contract, the board thanked the superintendent, who was once principal of the high school, for his hard work and dedication to the district.

Board President John Swenning said that Rella has been a blessing to the Comsewogue community.

“You can’t go anywhere that he is not recognized by students and parents.”